Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

I listened to To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman back to back this week.

 
Mockingbird was a delight to experience again after all these years. Having discovered, and accepted, that Watchman is neither a prequel nor a sequel (It’s the first draft of the same novel – a draft that was rejected) I relaxed into Reese Witherspoon’s southern accent and tried to enjoy it for what it was.
 
Watchman is a bit weak on story. I found it preachy and annoying towards the end where the perspicacious author’s voice comes through in a sequence of final speeches. The editor, I imagine, might have said: ‘You have an interesting subject (black man on trial for rape of white girl in 1930s south) but didn’t make enough of it, and an interesting voice (Scout in the flashbacks) and should use those to frame your rewrite.’
 
In order to mould it into her bestselling classic, Harper Lee cut many irrelevant episodes (including Jean Louise’s boring love interest and uninspired coming-of-age anecdotes). She changed the point of view – it was no longer an adult looking back at her childhood, but a story written from the child’s point of view. The new version centred around the court case where Atticus is not an anomaly among white men – he does have a black maid and only takes the case because he is asked to. He fights for Tom Robinson even though he knows he will lose. He may not speak down to black people but he does consider himself as a step above.
 
As a reader it’s a mediocre book.
 
As a writer, it’s fascinating how Harper Lee rewrote and turned it around. It’s interesting that she kept whole chunks of text (that appear almost word for word in both versions), like the history of the feud between two families, or the history of how the town was founded. She had obviously done the research and wanted to keep the words.
 
I found an interesting piece by Brilliant Books here:

“We suggest you view this work as an academic insight rather than as a nice summer novel. This situation is comparable to James Joyce’s stunning work ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man‘, and his original draft ‘Stephen Hero‘. ‘Hero’ was initially rejected, and Joyce reworked it into the classic ‘Portrait’. ‘Hero’ was eventually released as an academic piece for scholars and fans—not as a new ‘Joyce novel’. We would have been delighted to see “Go Set A Watchman” receive a similar fate.”


In conclusion, I’m not sorry I spent a week in Alabama with Scout/Jean Louise but I do feel that publishing this book was a huge swindle on the part of the publisher. Large profits were made by misleading the public that this was a prequel/sequel. How many of us purchased Mockingbird for the second time too? I couldn’t possibly know what state of mind Harper Lee is currently in, but I know I wouldn’t want any of my early drafts to be released like this.

I’m inclined to agree with Salman Rushdie on this:

Salman Rushdie

@SalmanRushdie

Don’t think I’ll be reading Go Set Your Watch or whatever it’s called. I have unpublished juvenilia too; would cringe if it got published.

 
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Short stories: ‘The China Factory’ by Mary Costello

‘The China Factory’ by Mary Costello

This collection of short stories, published by The Stinging Fly, really drew me in. The first story, The China Factory, and the last, The Sewing Room, are beautiful pieces. But there is plenty to recommend in between: The Patio Man, And who will pay Charon, and Little Disturbances being worthy of mention.

The China Factory features Gus, the main character’s co-worker, who gives her a lift to work every day. He’s a quiet hero and she betrays him, but he understands that she’s young and desperate to fit in with the other women, even if she has nothing in common with them. 

‘She was the kind of girl who wore flesh-coloured tights and pencil skirts but never jeans, and would grow into the kind of woman I never wanted to be.’


The Sewing Room is an elegant story, which fits perfectly with the main character’s comportment. It recounts the build-up to a schoolteacher’s retirement party. While she accepts everyone’s best wishes she is also considering her past mistakes. A slow-moving and evocative story.

I like that the first story is about a young girl starting in her first job and the last story is a woman retiring after many years of service.

In many of these stories there is a note of loneliness, especially within married couples: A husband reminiscing on an affair he had with a girl when he was school inspector; a wife, bored in her relationship, having an online affair; a husband waiting for the results of medical tests, unable to express his feelings. Quite a sad reflection on married life.

Although the characters are normal, almost banal, there is disease, rape, death lurking in the background. 

This collection is a treasure trove to be dipped into and savoured. Mary Costello has a light touch and an uncomplicated, understated way of telling a story.

Review: ‘The Three Musketeers’ by Alexandre DUMAS

Statue of D’Artagnan in Auch, Gers

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre DUMAS



Written in serialised form in 1844, and set around 1625 in the France of Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Anne of Austria and bishop Richelieu, Les Trois Mousquetaires is a story of adventure that still delights and entertains. Although historically inaccurate in places, it is rich in colour and atmosphere, full of witty dialogue and drama. It is the first in a trilogy about D’Artagnan (other books are Twenty Years After, and The Vicomte de Bragelonne).


D’Artagnan is a brave but temperamental Gascon who makes his way to Paris on a yellow horse, encountering adventures on the way. He provokes duels with each of the three musketeers – Athos, Porthos and Aramis – when he first meets them in Paris. However they join forces to fight the bishop’s guards and forget their differences and become friends. D’Artagnan dreams of joining the Musketeers – the King’s guards –  and is finally admitted to the Musketeers at the Siege of La Rochelle. D’Artagnan also falls in love with Madame Bonacieux and embarks on a quest to save her, a quest which takes him to England and back, and which also saves Queen Anne of Austria’s reputation.




Les Trois Mousquetaires first appeared in serialised form in 1844

A Gascon

Dumas’ genius must lie in the characters he creates. Like Dickens, his characters attract and hold our interest and D’Artagnan remains one of the most well-known and well-loved characters of all time. Much is made of the fact that D’Artagnan is a Gascon.

He had the power of seeing in the night:


‘It is said that the eyes of Gascons, like those of cats, have the faculty of seeing in the night. D’Artagnon was able to see therefore…’

He was proud:

‘Proud as a Scotchman, muttered Buckingham. ‘And we,’ answered d’Artagnan, say ‘proud as a Gascon’. The Gascons are the Scotchmen of France.’

And crafty:

‘Imagine Don Quixote at eighteen; Don Quixote without his corselet, without his coat of mail, without his cuisses, a Don Quixote clothed in a woollen doublet… face long and brown, high cheek bones, indicating craftiness, the maxillary muscles enormously developed, an infallible sign by which a Gascon may always be detected even without his cap…’

 And brave:

‘Our brave Gascon has just shown himself as brave and as faithful as ever.’

D’Artagnan was clever enough to be able to read people just by looking at the countenance of those he encountered:

‘It was not a landlord this time but a landlady who received him. D’Artagnan, being somewhat of a physiognomist, examined at a glance the fat and good-humoured face of the mistress of the place. This glance satisfied him that dissimulation was not necessary with her and that he had nothing to fear from such a happy-looking countenance.’

Women

Women in Dumas’ world could be weak, powerful,  cunning, charming, vindictive, and capable of sorcery.

‘There was an understanding between this lady and Porthos. If she was a lady of quality she would have fainted, but, as she was only a solicitor’s wife, she contented herself with saying in a concentrated rage…’


‘The enchantress had resumed that magic charm which she took up and laid aside at pleasure, that is to say beauty, softness, tears and above all the irresistible attraction of that mystical voluptuousness which is the most irresistible of all kinds of voluptuousness.’


‘Her ladyship wished to please the Abysse and this was a very easy task for a woman so truely superior. She endeavoured to be amiable and became charming so that her entertainer was seduced by her varied conversation as well as by the grades which appeared in all her person.’


I’m particularly amazed at this feisty lady:

‘Athos examined it (the ring) and became very pale. He then tried it on the ring finger… A shade of anger and revenge passed across the generally calm forehead of the gentleman.

She turned, no longer like a mere furious woman, but like a wounded panther.

‘Ah, wretch,’ said she, ‘you have betrayed me like a coward, and, moreover, you have learned my secret. You must die.’

And she ran to an inlaid cabinet on her toilet table, opened it with a feverish, trembling hand, drew from it a small dagger with a golden hilt and a sharp and slender blade and returned with one bound to the side of d’Artagnan, her vesture in pieces. Although the young man was, as we know, brave, he was frightened at that convulsed countenance, at those horrible dilated pupils, at those pale cheeks and bleeding lips. He arose and recoiled as from the approach of a serpent that had crawled towards him and, instinctively putting his perspiring hand to his sword, he drew it from the sheath. But…. her Ladyship still advanced to strike him.

Her Ladyship was rushing at him in horrible transports of rage and howling in a fearful manner…’

 

The English

Dumas manages to slip in a few amusing digs at English food:

‘The English, who above all things require to be well-fed in order to prove good-soldiers, eating only salted provisions and bad biscuits, had many invalids in their camp.’


And comments on the weather in England:

‘It was one of those few and fine summer days when Englishmen remember that there is a sun.’

 

Food

Proper sustenance is critical for the French, even in the midst of battle:

‘We are four against one… about to be engaged to a far greater amount of foes…. How many persons? Twenty men. How far off are they? About 500 paces. Good, we have still time to finish this fowl and to drink a glass of wine. To your health, d’Artagnan!’


The musketeers even ask the enemy to hold off the battle until after breakfast:

‘Gentlemen, we are some of my friends and myself engaged in breakfasting in this bastion. Now you know that nothing is more disagreeable than to be disturbed at breakfast, so we entreat of you… to wait until we have finished our repast or to come back in a little while unless… and coming to drink with us to the health of the King of France.’

Loose ends

The story in this book meanders and detours. Some of the loose ends are conveniently tied up, like where her Ladyship might be found. The name of the town they will later need to locate actually falls out of someone’s hat:

‘Hello sir. Here is a paper which fell out of your hat. Hello sir, hello.’

‘My friend,’ said d’Artagnan, ‘half a pistole for that paper.’

‘With the greatest pleasure, here it is.’

D’Artagnan unfolded the paper. Only one word…the name of a town… Armentieres…. is written in her hand… let us take great care of this paper…’

Her Ladyship decides to wait for the cardinal’s orders in a convent, which also happens to be the convent where Madame Bonacieux is being held:

‘I am proceeding to the Carmelite convent at Bethune where I shall await your orders.’

‘All for one and one for all’

The famous slogan is only referred to once in the book, although there are many duels and shows of bravery.

Some of the pleasure in reading this book is the fact that the real D’Artagnan (Charles de Batz de Castelmore d’Artagnan)  on whom Dumas based his character, came from Lupiac, a village in Gascony. So, whilst reading the book, I paid a visit to the Musée D’Artagnan in Lupiac and was transported to the 17th century. It was easy to imagine the proud D’Artagnan,  leaving the area as a boy and returning many years later leading the King’s guard. The entourage travelled through France and Gascony on the way to St Jean de Luz where Louis XIV wed Marie-Thèrese of Austria.

The Luminaries: Review

2013 Man Booker Prize Winner: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

A week ago I was singing the praises of this book. Now, having finished, I’m not sure. Wonderful writing, but the plot is like a block of Emmental – more holes than cheese. I suspect this will go down as a Marmite book (or should that be Vegemite?): you’ll either love it or hate it.

Here’s the blurb:

‘It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky. The Luminaries is an extraordinary piece of fiction. It is full of narrative, linguistic and psychological pleasures, and has a fiendishly clever and original structuring device. Written in pitch-perfect historical register, richly evoking a mid-19th century world of shipping and banking and goldrush boom and bust, it is also a ghost story, and a gripping mystery. It is a thrilling achievement for someone still in her mid-20s, and will confirm for critics and readers that Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international writing firmament.’

SPOILER ALERT:

When I got to the final page (or final few minutes, as I was listening to this on Audible), I thought I’d missed something, skipped a chapter or fallen asleep during the denouement. So I went for a walk and tried to piece some of the parts together in my mind. I tried to remember how each character was linked to the others. Who was who? Where did the gold originate again? And where did it end up? And the gold that was in the 5th dress? And the bullet? Did I miss the explanation of the bullet? Or was the man behind the drape really all there was to it? What about Moody’s father? Did he find him in the end?

Considering I ended up with more questions the more I thought about it, I did the next logical thing – I googled. And I found scores of discussions. So I’m obviously not the only one in a state of confusion.

Sure, I glossed over all the astrological stuff. I thought the deeper significance would be explained. I made no attempt to place the compass points on the map and never knew if they were really relevant. I did get confused between the characters at times. But I really thought the whole story would become clear in the end. But it didn’t.

Despite all that, this was still a hugely satisfying read. How did Eleanor Catton do that? She kept my attention throughout, kept my curiosity tickled, and I had such an enjoyable time. It feels like a great book you read years ago – one that you recommend to everyone, yet, if they ask, you can’t quite remember the story but you remember loving it. The Luminaries just bypasses the stage of actually following the storyline and goes straight to the good memory part of the brain.

So, weirdest review ever: I loved this book despite all the above and would love to read it again.
But I probably won’t because I know I’ll still be scratching my head.

Will I read Eleanor Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal?
Absolutely.

Reading List

Just finished:

 

‘Fun Home’ by Alison Bechdel
I hadn’t read a graphic novel before and was amazed what graphics can bring to text. There were no superheroes though in this comic. It is an autobiographical account of the author’s life as she examines her homosexuality, mulling over every childhood memory. She wonders why her father died – whether it was suicide or not. She also examines whether her ‘coming out’ had anything to do with his death. And whether his death had anything to do with the possibility that he was bisexual. An honest and insightful story, with a smattering of interesting literary references. A book I’ll definitely read again.

‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ by Jennifer Egan
This is described as ‘a new classic of American fiction’ by Time. Made up of interrelated stories that form a whole. Some characters appear in one chapter, then reappear older and more decrepit in another. I loved this book, yet felt frustrated, as I often do in these type of novels. I can’t relax, wondering whether a minor character is just that, or whether they’ll take over the story later. I find myself flicking back and forth trying to remember where a character appeared before. I need to read this again.

Currently Reading:



‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton
I was planning on reading all the books on the Man Booker shortlist but only managed to read ‘Translantic’ by Colum McCann and ‘Almost English’ by Charlotte Mendelson before the award (both fantastic and highly-recommended). So now I’m listening to the winning book on Audible. It is set during the gold rush in New Zealand in the 1860s and the cast of characters is vast. There is a Chinese opium dealer, a Scottish prospector, a whoremonger, a politician, a French legal clerk and a ship captain… among others. This book reads like a classic, with somewhat old-fashioned language and narrative techniques. I’m about two-thirds of the way through and highly recommend it.

 

 ‘The Spinning Heart’ by Donal Ryan
A debut novel from Donal Ryan, dealing with the property boom and bust in Ireland and how it touched the lives of various people (21 narrators). The writing is honest and beautiful, with distinctive voices, which makes it a very easy book to read. I read the first half in one sitting and looking forward to reading the second half tonight. The first paragraph really draws you in. The narrator, talking about his father, says: ‘I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down. He hasn’t yet missed a day of letting me down.’ I’ll certainly order Donal Ryan’s new novel ‘The Thing About December’ as well.

 
‘Mud’ by Michèle Roberts   This is a short story collection. I bought it when I went to hear Michèle speak at the International Short Story Festival in Cork in September. Michèle’s writing is rich and sensual, and to hear her read was a pleasure. As with all short story collections, I’m dipping in and out of this slowly to absorb each set of characters and settings better. As Michèle is half-French half-English, I’m particularly interested in her use of language and her settings.
 
 



‘Young Skins’ by Colin Barrett
This is short story collection published by The Stinging Fly. I’ve read just a couple of the stories so far and love the settings and characters. These midlands-Irish males are so familiar yet under-represented in literature. Brings out the culchie in me!

 

In the to-read pile:





‘After the Fire, A still small voice’ by Evie Wyld
I bought this after I read Evie Wyld’s story in the Granta 123 magazine. Looking forward to reading it, especially as it’s set on Australia’s East coast (of which I have many fond memories as a backpacker).

 
 

Le requin marteau et les jours de la semaine

Le requin marteau et les jours de la semaine – Martin

My nine-year-old son came home from school last week begging to be brought to hear David Dumortier reading poetry in the library that evening. He’s not usually a bookish kid–more an outdoorsy type–so I was rather surprised. He went on to explain that David had been to his school that afternoon and had performed magic tricks. Aha! He wanted to see a magician, not a poet.

David is a fantastic entertainer. Reciting poetry, embedded in magic tricks, he made the kids laugh. One child was brought to the stage to learn how to do nothing. David had invented a machine to help him. The kid sat winding a handle on a toy that did nothing. Every time he stopped he was prodded to ‘keep it up, do nothing’ and he had to wind again.

Meanwhile a child helped carry a magician’s hat around the audience and David pulled out lines of poetry, read them and threw them into the air. My son grappled with the rest of the kids to grab as many as he could.

It was a great performance. He’s a great speaker. He also managed to sell a few books. But, as a writer, I’m depressed at the idea of having to do a similar performance to sell my work. These days it seems that writing the book is only part of the deal. Engaging with the public to persuade them to buy it is a huge part of the writer’s job. But what do you do if you’re not naturally a magician or entertainer?

The outcome for my nine-year-old: He begged if he could write a poem before bed. I agreed (bemused, amazed). He produced the above poem. He announced that it was ‘full of originality’ (Then he checked what originality means.) Still, I’d call that a result!

They actually don’t bite

The RTE Guide/Penguin publishing day

So, a first experience of meeting editors and publicists and people-in-the-know in the writing world–and they actually don’t bite.


The room in Pearse Street Library was buzzing with the group of writers longlisted for the RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland short story competition. We were looking forward to a day of talks and workshops, not to mention the networking opportunity and the chicken and stuffing sandwiches. The line-up included Jane Alger, Dublin UNESCO City of Literature and Cliona Lewis, Publicity Director, Penguin Ireland, who spoke about the industry in its current state, with some warnings about how hard it is to get published and how polished the manuscript needs to be. A dollop of luck is also a requirement. We had some informative talks and Q&A sessions with  Patricia Deevy, editorial director Penguin Ireland and Faith O’Grady, Lisa Richards Literary Agency. They were both very approachable and unassuming and urged us to polish, submit and keep writing.

There were three authors present (Sinéad Moriarty, Niamh Boyce and Mary Grehan) and also an interesting talk from Stephen Boylan, Books Purchasing Manager, Eason & Son and Donal O’Donoghue, Features Editor, RTÉ Guide. After lunch we had an excellent overview by Rachel Pierce, freelance editor, peppered with the real experiences of the authors on the panel. All in all a good mix from the publicist to the book buyer to the authors and the editors, the day was well-organised and efficient. All through the day there were plenty of questions and a chance to mingle.

The authors on the panel were: Mary Grehan, Love is the Easy Bit, who seemed to be enjoying the whirlwind of the first book publicity tour. And, this being Ireland, we discovered that we had both taught English in the same school in Japan. We compared just a few of our battle scars.

Niamh Boyce (The Herbalist: I blogged about it here) gave a very honest account of her writing methods and habits and entertained us with her dry wit.

Sinéad Moriarty, Mad about You: Her love of writing was evident. An established writer, on her tenth book, and such a positive energy and attitude. I’d say she works damn hard too, but she reminded us that we need to be in it for the journey and not the destination.

That reminds me of a documentary I saw recently on John Irving (A Prayer for Owen Meany and The world according to Garp.) He compared writing to preparation for a wrestling match. There’s a lot of training, repeating and perfecting every move, and then a short match that can be over in minutes. Irving takes about seven years to write each book. He says that you’ve got to love the journey, because the day the book comes out and for about four months, he’s on the publicity/interview circuit, but then he’s back to his desk for the next six or seven years.

So we left the event in high spirits and I got to enjoy a rare night out in Dublin.